By Mike Zwerin
PARIS, 7 January 2005— In his
, Joseph Conrad's hero
hears a sad female orchestra in a dour hotel on a
remote south sea island. "The Zangiacomo band was not making music," Conrad
wrote: "It was simply murdering silence with a vulgar, ferocious energy. One
felt as if witnessing a deed of violence."
The murder of silence has become a massacre on the mainland since then. The vulgarity and the ferocity of the music
have been increased many times over through expanding greed, and
cutting-edge technology. More music than ever is being produced today, most
of it owned and distributed by large corporations that control
the media, the concert venues, and the major distribution channels.
Violence sells. Music that violates our sensiility has become big
business. Walk into just about
any public urban space - supermarkets, restaurants, sporting events,
airports - and you will hear the aggressive sonic wallpaper known as
background music; the increasingly inescapable soundtrack of our lives. It
is branding more than music; an assault, an insult, a total lack of
respect for human dignity. Since bad music is so omni-present, people must
work harder and harder to make believe it's not there. And so music
becomes something to escape.
Boarding an Air France flight not long ago, I
heard, in addition to the usual aural soup pumped in to calm pre-takeoff
anxiety, that one track of the pop playlist intended for the earphones
(Enrique Iglesias, as it happened) had somehow escaped and was running
wild in the cabin. Two different tunes in two keys, one major one minor,
at the same time. You don't want to make trouble on airplanes these days,
so I waited for somebody else to say something. But nobody was listening.
So I finally told the stewardess that I was sorry to bother her but I was
a musician and it was driving me batty. She listened, heard it, and said; "Oh, you poor dear," and went
to shut off Iglesias. One small victory. Later, she asked
me if I thought it would be better for her daughter
to study the flute or the violin. How quaint. I
almost said to her that it did not make much
difference because just about nobody listens to music any more
Mostly, people do not listen to music because they
are too busy multi-tasking. Distraction is the order of the day. We are
monitoring too many screens. There is no time for concentrating on music all by
itself. Listening to music has become something to do while we
are doing something else - reading the paper, driving, vacuuming, text-messaging.
An adult doing nothing but listening to music is considered to
be not doing anything. With music becoming more childish, it
is mostly children who concentrate on music now. .
Since less and less people are really listening, more and more anti-music is made specifically
to be not listened to in the first place. It's a
kind of Catch 22. Why bother to try and make subtle
music if nobody is going to listen to it? (Listenable popular
music is still being made in Africa and Brazil, but
it is not popular in the first world.) .
People of all ages still listen during concerts.
Looking at the musicians, you're more or less forced to listen to them. So
it is just possible that all the new concert DVD's being marketed will get
listeners listening again - though there will certainly be somebody with a ball game muted on television while keeping track
of a roast in the oven at the same time. It
is, by the way, possible to eat and listen to music
full-time at the same time. For a guaranteed undivided-attention listening experience,
read Bob Dylan's "Lyrics, 1962-2001" while he sings the songs.
(Press the pause button if your cell phone rings.)
According to The Guardian newspaper, Tony Blair,
an amateur rock guitarist, voted for Lynyrd Skynyrd's anthem "Free Bird"
as his favorite guitar solo. Not that there's anything wrong with Lynyrd
Skynyrd. Their simple-minded, redneck, three-guitar rock 'n' roll was made for
dancing, and dancing is a dandy homage to music. But it
would have been a nice surprise if Blair had chosen a
guitar player with a bit more, well, culture. Tony Blair
does not appear to be such a serious listener
Are there any serious listeners among today's
national leaders? It would be nice to think that a politician who takes
some time out to listen to music seriously would make a good leader.
During World War II, jazz fans in Occupied Europe said that anybody who
liked jazz could not be a Nazi. People listened seriously in those days.
They could go to jail for listening to music. Adolf Hitler, remember,
loved to listen to Richard Wagner. Speaking of which, to conclude, Mark
Twain, a serious listener indeed, said: "Richard Wagner's music is not as
bad as it sounds."
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and
rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty
years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for
Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.
Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from
'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des
Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.